There are two primary memories I have of the Cold War, and both of these retain a good practical function. The first is of President Ronald Reagan’s rectal polyps whose broad dissection in ‘80s media made me especially mindful of colon health. The second is of a very grumpy history teacher, Mr Dean, who gave me decades of loathing for the song Imagine.
Every time I hear Imagine, I remember the Cold War and its ardent student Mr Dean who called the song, “an oblivious dirge”, “a piece of crap” and “every idiotic conclusion I urge you to avoid in Cold War 1”.
As I was smoking a lot of weed and writing essays even richer in idiocy than John Lennon back then, I did not avoid idiotic conclusions in Cold War 1. But nor did I manage to completely avoid Mr Dean’s critical urging as I grew into adulthood.
You can’t “imagine there’s no countries”, said Mr Dean, unless you first understand how countries came to be. Mr Dean said he would like to teach that utopian hippy about the Peace of Westphalia. This 17th century treaty, he said, was a European moment that gave birth to the powerful idea of the nation state and the world as we currently endure it.
Things don’t just happen, he said. The dense territorial arrogance of the world’s superpowers did not unfold because of a failure to “imagine”. Mr Dean was very cross with the way Russia and the US played out their historical aggressions in the Middle East – “we don’t even have the decency to murder each other these days!”—but he seemed especially cranky with John Lennon. “Tell an Arab to Imagine There’s No Countries! When you’re surrounded by treacherous borders marked by guns and wire, it isn’t Easy If You Try”.
In short, Mr Dean taught me that the unfolding of human history informs us all, that no longhair can undo the Sykes-Picot Agreement and that I should feel real physical revulsion every time the radically ahistoric Imagine was played. And so, I do. Which is usually fine, until the damn thing re-emerges, as it does from time to time, as a signifier of hope for many but only as a reminder to me of the dangers that inhere in pretending that history is just something we can overcome.
This past weekend, Imagine became unavoidable. Outside Bataclan, the Paris nightclub in which an estimated 90 people were slaughtered, a pianist was filmed playing the old song and this moment was widely reported. To be clear, this is not, even for a millisecond, to police the grief of those who were moved by the song nor is it to diminish the brutality of the deaths the song commemorated.
It is, however, to say that Mr Dean’s lessons are no longer taught. And to suggest, in a spirit of peace and not one of disgust or even patient judgement, that the end of history in the consciousness of the west is an urgent problem.
Again, to be as clear and as loving as possible in a moment, we are all agreed, is darkened by hate, I am not proposing here that all the western world needs now is to crack some history books.
First, my grasp of international relations begins and largely ends with Mr Dean, who (generously) awarded me 51% for Cold War 1, so, I am hardly qualified to say “this is the way to solve the problem of jihadism”. Second, I am not, largely thanks to Mr Dean, so utopian that I think there is any simple prescription for complex ills. Third, I do not suppose that my experience on Saturday, so removed from the direct experience of war, is particularly instructive. But I offer it, nonetheless, in the hope that a brief account of my reflections on Paris, begun in ineluctable loathing for a song and ended in historic confusion, might help you find a little sense in yours.
On Saturday, the weight of Mr Dean was on my mind. Or, more to the point, the agonising lightness of the song Imagine was. Even if one did not hear this song, one felt its echoes elsewhere. In this piece by The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood, published in March but widely shared as wisdom again across the weekend, we are urged in a sophisticated way to “imagine” “no religion”. You can call his analysis realist post-Saidism if you want, but it did boil down to the utopian view that we can overcome history with moral goodness. Of which the west, apparently emptied of any kind of harmful ideology at all, has abundant supply.
It was a more candid Imagine favoured by the singer Billy Bragg in a popular Facebook post which, again, made religion the culprit.
Bragg, whose records I used to enjoy back when I was Mr Dean’s worst pupil, has long positioned himself as a good student of history. He has sung The Internationale, filmed a documentary on Tasmanian convict history and written in The Guardian that history was “far from being a stuffy subject that concerns itself merely with kings,” but an indispensable tool for understanding. This is a guy who has not just said “our past is important” but “the way in which we choose to read our past is important”. This makes him an amateur historiographer and, therefore, much more sophisticated that the rest of us.
But, still. The guy unleashed naiveté of a sort that we could overlook in a more generally vacant celebrity but seems especially curious here. When the guy who bangs out “between the wars” and references dialectical materialism in interviews starts saying “they hate our freedom”, you start wondering if someone burnt all the books.
Bragg’s post troubled me because it was so empty of history; even empty of a memory of very recent events. Therein, he took exception to the fact that the terrible attacks had taken place on a Friday night when people were “enjoying themselves”. “This was an abhorrent attack on anyone who goes to a bar, or to a restaurant, to a gig or to a game”.
No, it was just an abhorrent attack. To say that it was particularly abhorrent because of the time of day or the activity of its civilian victims is to necessarily say that it could have been less abhorrent. What is a less abhorrent time and place for murder? It is early Saturday morning at a hospital in Kunduz where no one was enjoying themselves at all? Was it last week in Mosul where an Iraqi family of 7 was murdered by Coalition airstrikes? Bragg, a person who explicitly critiques the privileging of one reading of history over another, lost little time in privileging, and demolishing, history.
Again, to be painfully clear, this critique is not to diminish any grief that you, Bragg or John Kerry might feel for the noncombatant victims. Murder is murder is murder and if you happen to feel more compassion for those it claims in Paris than you do for patients and doctors at a hospital in Afghanistan, you’re not a bad person. You’re a person crying real tears. There is no need for your grief to be proportionately given to all those noncombatants who suffer in the world. After all, if there were, you’d do nothing these days but cry for the Middle East. No one has time for that.
But, what we may still have time for is an understanding that is derived not only from necessary, cathartic emotion but one that Billy Bragg has decided to abandon.
To unburden ourselves of the weight of history is a luxury we have in the west. It’s one in which I consciously indulged when I forced myself away from the internet’s accommodating void and took a run to the shops.
Aldi, a discount supermarket, rarely fails to make me feel better with its absurdity. I rarely purchase from their peculiar rotating array of weekly specials that might include food dehydrators, hospital tables or SCUBA gear, but I always grin in their direction.
Last Saturday, though, everything was making me miserable and when I saw that the store was selling vinyl LPs, I started screaming to myself “THIS IS THE WESTERN END OF HISTORY! NOTHING IS REAL ANYMORE”.
And, yes, obviously I am a wanker who was badly damaged by Cultural Studies in the ’90s and, yes, obviously, there is nothing particularly wrong with the production or consumption of obsolete technology in a discount store. If someone wants a manufactured antique that is less a copy of an original, than it is a copy of empty hipster fetishism that itself copies nothing except the fiction of its own refined taste, that’s okay. But I describe this anxiety, which was about to reach its post-hipster high water mark, only in the mild hope that you can find a way to measure your own unease against my sense of the disappearing real.
I left Aldi, which had failed to make me happy, and resumed my jog around the perimeter of the nation’s second-oldest shopping mall. Sometimes, when I feel myself dissolving into the confusion of everyday life in the west, this approach works well. If I run around something that I would normally approach only by car, I feel that I make it more real. Or, at least, I feel the anxiety diminish and my footing in the world resume.
Out on a run to the shops and away from Billy Bragg and the millions shrieking “they hate our freedom”, it struck me that “we hate our history”. We must do, because what I happened to run into outside the carpark of this private space was a fleet of food trucks.
We have a very scant history of “food trucks” in Australia. It is one largely limited to the sale of dagwood dogs. Even in the US, from which our new fascination for food trucks is recently borrowed, the “chuck wagon” has an uneven history which does not logically lead up to its hipster present which is not so much a matter of revival as it is of offensive reinvention. In the case of middle-class American mini-Bourdains who congratulate themselves for their courage and the ability of their palates to tolerate “street food”, the false asceticism is bad enough. It’s just awful to simulate poverty. But, it was more awful at my shopping mall whose 50 year tradition exceeds that of the faux “old timey” food truck armada and its mise-en-scene provided by centre management which included branded 44 gallon drums newly manufactured to appear rustic and “real”.
This wasn’t even a sale or a display of something to pretending to be something that it wasn’t. It was something that was so relaxed, it couldn’t even be arsed pretending to have an anchor in history.
Again, there is nothing particularly wrong with the purchase of reproduced reproductions or of paying $10 for a rice paper roll in a rusticated carpark when you could have bought one for three dollars inside. There is nothing more morally reprehensible about this act than there is in crying at a version of Imagine, or, indeed, of sneering at it and wondering if Yoko collected royalties.
And, unless you are a foreign policy adviser, there is probably nothing wrong with forgetting history altogether and freeing yourself from its troublesome bonds.
But, there is something impossible about believing that the “freedom” that we enjoy, or endure, to be ahistoric is a perspective that everyone in the world understands.
On the battlegrounds of Iraq, or on the streets of Paris, young men who have had little education that did not come from radical mullahs, learn history. They learn about Sykes-Picot and they see themselves not as products of the present, able to pop down to Aldi to buy reproduced reproductions, but as the historical result of colonisation that continues to unfold. And one that unfolds from overhead. You can’t shoot back at airstrikes, so you shoot where you can.
These are not individuals loosed from a series of events who see symbols of the past configured into meaninglessness. That’s a western “privilege” you can see served up in a food truck.
Again and again to be clear, this is not to say the young men of ISIS and scions are justified or free in their actions — it seems absurd to say “I don’t condone murder”, but we have arrived at a time where one must state the obvious. To state it: what happened in Paris sickens me to my core and I have been undergoing a stupid anxiety attack in supermarkets and elsewhere now for 48 hours.
The anxiety is worthless and the only thing it has given me is the half-arsed idea that the history we have abandoned in our everyday lives and reproduced down to nothing in supermarkets has been outsourced to wartorn nations. And, unless we, as everyday subjects and not as powerful people, begin to understand that some people live their lives chained to history and borders, we will not be as “free” as we presume ourselves to be.
We have the pleasure of forgetfulness and the joy of free movement. We move through borders and we tear through history and we say, from within this lovely bubble of ignorance, that the most significant difference between Us and Them is “religion”. Why can’t they “imagine” none of it?
Perhaps, roughly, for the same reasons we cannot imagine anything beyond the present which we believe, with all our hearts, bears no relation to the past.